We just returned from 12 days of cruising and touring various countries with our family — Greece, Turkey, Montenegro, Croatia and Italy. The morning after our flight to Athens – and before we could shake the jet lag cobwebs from our heads – we climbed up the steps to the Acropolis. This seven-acre fortress towers 490 feet above the city and at its center is the ancient, white marble Parthenon, with its 44 huge columns. What remains is only a fraction of the architectural magnificence it most certainly had when it was completed in 438 BC.
Later that day we boarded our cruise ship and thereafter, every day was a new adventure. The first stop was the small Greek island of Mykonos, with its crystal-clear Aegean Sea waters and distinctive white plaster homes and commercial buildings. Some call it a whitewashed paradise and now I can understand why. Many of the rich and famous have vacationed there or anchored their yacht in the port, including Aristotle Onassis. We enjoyed an interesting walking tour.
In Istanbul — population estimated at 20 million – tours included the magnificent 6th century St. Sophia cathedral and the Blue Mosque, which was completed in 1616. Both are huge, very impressive and well preserved. We were there on the last day of the Ramadan holiday and the city was crammed with visitors. Remarkably, ours was the first cruise ship to visit there in the past four years.
Next port was Kusadasi, Turkey, where we walked through an entire city of magnificent Roman/Grecian 10th century BC ruins at nearby Ephesus. It is amazing how well the Greeks developed ancient civilizations. Thousands of years ago they created stunning architecture and advanced other sciences in many ways, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, medicine and more.
As I was gazing at a beautiful marble statue with one arm missing and the nose hacked off, a thought came to mind: There are builders and creators and there are wreckers and destroyers. Both groups may have similar motivations, religion, power, wealth or some combination thereof. But the former advance civilization, while the latter impede it, sometimes simply out of ignorance. Many of the impeders are still around to this day.
After an overnight sail we docked at another Greek Isle, Santorini. It rises hundreds of meters out of the blue Aegean Sea like a huge, steep-walled citadel. Although the sun was bright, the wind was strong that morning with higher winds scheduled for early evening. That would cut our visit a bit short but after being ferried to shore, we took a short bus ride to the Akrotiri archeological site to view some interesting 16th century BC ruins. Let that sink in, 16th century BC.
Later we were dropped off at one end of the main shopping area of Firá, the capital city of Santorini. With some difficulty we navigated up the crowded, narrow, cobblestone streets to the cable car station where we caught a spectacular ride down the 660 feet to the Santorini Old port. There, a tender ferried us back to the ship.
Several friends have asked a tough question to answer; which country or city was most impressive? Dubrovnik, Croatia would certainly be high on the list. The old city there, which dates back to the 12th century, is a fascinating, walled fortress in the harbor. Another favorite, Kotor, Montenegro, is just a short drive down the coast. In both countries we learned a lot about olives and what extra virgin means on a label of olive oil.
During the trip we sampled ouzo, a dry, anise-flavored liquor that is Greece’s national drink and grappa, a brandy made from grape skins, seeds and stalks left over from the wine making process, supplemented with herbs. My wife and I were served small glasses of this clear, high-powered liquid during our tour of a small winery near Dubrovnik. It is said to be good for digestion.
Grappa is also a popular drink in Montenegro. Our tour there began with a bus ride up the switchbacks of a steep mountain road that was barely wide enough for a car to pass the bus. All the while the guide was telling us about how the locals had a reputation for being lazy and drinking a lot. She said many take a shot of grappa as soon as they open their eyes in the morning, including her grandmother. I wondered how many others on the bus were hoping the driver was not one of those laidback drinkers.
We ended our adventure in Venice, Italy, where most of us spent some quality time at the magnificent San Marco square. We walked the three miles back to the dock on the other side of the city through numerous quaint piazzas, down narrow alleys and across bridges over many of the canals. We got to see our share of gondolas.
While reflecting on the trip I remembered an article I read by NYT Magazine writer Sam Anderson. He chronicled the life of Rick Steves, a television personality, travel guide and author. Rick urges Americans to get a passport and let the world outside the United States change their life. One of his books is entitled “Travel as a Political Act.” Steves believes travel is not only fun but it may make a huge difference in the tourist’s outlook on life and politics. Having visited over 40 countries, I whole heartedly agree.